The windows lining the high ceilings in the lunch area of Shakopee High School are underscored by flags of dozens of nations, but for the students, it’s about more than geographical awareness.

Shakopee students hosted their fourth Culture Fest the evening of March 21 in the spacious cafeteria at the school. Members of the student organization LEAD (Leaders in Education And Diversity) partner with other clubs, parents and community businesses to pull off their biggest event of the year.

Programming included potluck-style food provided by students and parents, an intercultural fashion show and performances from students and outside groups. Faculty adviser Monica Sariego said LEAD and partnering clubs plan all year for the event.

One of the annual highlights of the evening for Sariego is the student fashion show.

“The pride on their faces when they walk out repping their culture, it’s amazing,” she said.

Principal Jeff Pawlicki estimates this was the biggest turnout for the event so far, and faculty adviser Matthew Dueffert confirmed around 350 people were served, a significant increase from 2018, when about 200 people attended.

According to Cristina Oxtra, AVID district director and former LEAD adviser, the festival used to be small enough to host during a school lunch hour, but growth necessitated the transition to an evening event.

“Going into it, we really wanted to live up to the past,” said Visara Soka, one of two student presidents of LEAD.

Co-president Sierra Thoulouis echoed Soka’s pride in putting it on.

“We know how much work we put into it,” she said. “We have to be prepared for everything, and we want to include everybody.”

Pawlicki said the high school is about 40 percent non-white, which is close to the national average of 41 percent, based on data pulled from 2015 on the National Center for Education Statistics’ website.

“Events like this represent Shakopee,” Pawlicki said.

LEAD works within a small budget, which, according to Dueffert, “pretty much bought the paper plates.” The rest was contributed by students, parents and local businesses.

The event used to be theater-focused, according to Dueffert. Students used drama to highlight cultural diversity, but LEAD made the decision to shift to a more community-centric format.

“We wanted to celebrate it together rather than put it on display,” he said.

LEAD still holds auditions for all the performances, keeping inclusivity in mind.

“We want to include everybody,” Soka said.

One of the perks of helping organize the event is the opportunity to participate. Student groups like the World Language Honor Society had booths at the event, as did Master Moon’s Tae Kwon Do, a local martial arts school that also contributed a demonstration during the festivities.

Students of the Association of Latino Ambassadors of Shakopee helped organize the event and contributed a performance later in the evening. The event is voluntary for students. No classes at the school require the Culture Fest, though a new feature of the event’s growth allows teachers to count the event for continuing education credit.

Soka said she was surprised to learn other schools do not put on similar events.

“People need to come not just because it’s fun, but because it’s about something important,” Thoulouis said.

And fun it was.

“One of the biggest problems,” Thoulouis added with a smile as the evening ended, “is getting people to leave.”

South regional editor

Deena is the regional editor for Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake and Savage and is passionate about uncovering the truth. Deena also enjoys gardening, playing tennis and up-cycling furniture.

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